SINGAPORE – In the months following the 9/11 terror attacks and the discovery of regional terror network Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and its plots against multiple targets here, the greater danger to multiracial, multi-religious Singapore was not to physical safety, but to mutual trust and cohesion, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
In the face of extreme Islamist terrorism, and after several Singaporean members of the JI were detained, non-Muslims could easily have become fearful and suspicious of their Muslim neighbours, colleagues and friends, he said.
And Muslims in turn, feeling distrusted and threatened, could have closed in on themselves.
“We would have been divided by race and religion. And if an attack had actually taken place here, our society could have been torn apart,” he added in a commentary on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 published on Saturday (Sept 11).
Singapore drew on the trust built up over many years among different communities and with the Government, overcoming sensitive issues together in an even-handed way for the collective good, he said.
“In an existential crisis, Singaporeans instinctively pulled together, and responded strongly and cohesively to keep ourselves safe,” added the Prime Minister.
Exactly 20 years ago on Sept 11, 2001, militants from terror group Al-Qaeda hijacked commercial planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000.
PM Lee, who was then Acting Prime Minister in Mr Goh Chok Tong’s absence, said that the dangers to Singapore had appeared far sooner and nearer than imagined, as the JI terror group, which had a common ideology and direct links with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was discovered by the authorities.
On 9/11, JI members were already in advanced planning for simultaneous truck bomb attacks on multiple targets in Singapore, including the US Embassy and other Western interests. “Fortunately, the Internal Security Department acted swiftly to disrupt the group, in time to prevent a disaster,” PM Lee wrote.
Singaporeans pulled together, with community and religious leaders standing in solidarity and coming out to condemn the attacks.
“In particular, Muslim leaders were forthright in repudiating the terrorists, and they guided the community on the true teachings of Islam. Non-Muslim leaders too spoke up in support of religious tolerance and to express confidence in their fellow Singaporeans,” he added.
PM Lee cited efforts by the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles to build trust and the Religious Rehabilitation Group to counsel those led astray by violent extremist ideology. Several Muslim groups came together to help support the families affected, and in most cases, the efforts succeeded.
“Because we did all this, our racial and religious harmony held, and indeed strengthened.”
The fight against terrorism is far from over, he added. Extremist terrorism has metastasised and digital media amplified the poison.
Al-Qaeda was succeeded by ISIS, which has lost physical territory but continues to operate, including online. Lone-wolf attackers have self-radicalised on the Internet.
“And now that the US has left Afghanistan, we will have to watch closely how the situation there develops, whether groups based in Afghanistan will again threaten our security, and where else new fronts of terrorism may emerge,” he said.
Racial harmony in Singapore is still a work in progress, he added. “9/11 showed how powerful are the forces that can pull us apart, and how careful we must be when making any changes to the formula that has delivered racial and religious harmony for Singapore.”
PM Lee cautioned against the assumption that the tendency of people to identify with their own racial and religious groups has been overcome. “We have to keep on bringing all the communities closer together, and from time to time adjust the delicate balance that the different communities have reached.”
Describing Singaporeans’ shared experience of 9/11 as a formative chapter in nation building, he said: “Let us resolve to fortify ourselves so that should we ever face another such test one day, we will come through again, stronger, as one united people.”